In one of the most important pieces of literature in the 20th century, Their Eyes Were Watching God, Zora Neale Hurston brilliantly captured an unfortunate truth about Black womanhood in the following passage:
So de white man throw down de load and tell de nigger man tuh pick it up. He pick it up because he have to, but he don’t tote it. He hand it to his womenfolks. De nigger woman is de mule uh de world so fur as Ah can see. Ah been prayin’ fur it tuh be different wid you.
My mind wanders to this passage- written in the 1930’s when I think about the constant attack of Black women in the media. The vilification and debasement of Black women has a long, troubled history in America that lingers with its rotten stench into our pseudo post-racial society.
Michelle Obama’s presence in the White House has invoked a plan of sorts, by certain individuals and entities, to defy her image by reinforcing all things negative about Black women.
Every week there is a new study focusing on how and why Black women are at the bottom of the totem pole in the land of the free.
Psychology Today is the most recent culprit participating in the campaign to demean Black women. Evolutionary psychologist Satoshi Kanazawa deemed it appropriate to write an incredibly flawed article, using equally flawed science titled, “Why Are Black Women Rated Less Physically Attractive Than Other Women?” In April it was Cassandra Dorius, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Michigan Institute for Social Research, whose study found that 59 percent of Black women have children by multiple fathers. Before that it was the abortion ad in SoHo claiming the most dangerous place for a child is in the Black woman’s womb. Prior to the SoHo ad there was the study that found Black women’s median wealth to be $5. And of course, there are the ambiguous studies, articles and broadcast segments that will have you believe Black women, especially successful ones, are so undesirable they cannot find Black men to wed.
Let’s not forget the attacks on Michelle Obama early in her husband’s campaign and inauguration into office. A segment of our very ill and racist society hated the idea of a loving, supportive and intelligent Black woman so much that the erroneous Fox News Network reduced her to a “baby mama.” Her senior thesis at Princeton garnered her the label of a racist. God forbid someone write a thesis on if the Black alumni of Princeton will be “more or less motivated to benefit the Black community.” And her infamous statement, “for the first time in my adult life I’m proud of my country,” where sound bites conveniently clipped “adult life” from the speech, was used as some sort of litmus test to prove how unpatriotic she was.
The image of both President Obama and the First Lady in the White House has been a triumphant victory for Blacks. Not because his policies will essentially pull our community out of its rut, but solely because Barack and Michelle’s image, globally, awakens the world to the multiplicity of Blacks in America. They represent what is far too often ignored.
It is painstakingly obvious that far too many people consider a beautiful, intelligent, elegant, Ivy-league educated couple devoid of scandal as dangerous because it challenges the very depictions of Blacks that support people’s unchallenged biases.
Michelle’s image, in particular, has defied the effects of Regan’s “welfare queen” campaign. Whenever she speaks, her words dispel the idea that we are somehow intellectually inferior. Her very existence is contrary to all of the misguided boxes Black women are placed in–attitudinal, hypersexual, loud, inarticulate and uncouth. And because she represents the countless Black women who are none of those things, dubious forces are operating in overdrive to counter her positive image.
Be very clear about what is happening and what will continue to get worse as idiots, racists and sexists are given platforms. bell hooks eloquently describes it better than I ever could:
So what we see is that the mass media, film, TV, all of these things, are powerful vehicles for maintaining the kinds of systems of domination we live under, imperialism, racism, sexism etc. Often there’s a denial of this and art is presented as politically neutral, as though it is not shaped by a reality of domination.
America cannot comprehend a country where Black women hold advanced degrees; a world where we are more qualified than our White counterparts. It is beyond comprehension for the ilk of the Bill O’Reilleys of the world to imagine a country where not all Blacks were raised in the ‘hood. Our racist nation cannot fathom the legions of Black women who have some of the shared experiences as our First Lady.
As long as Black women are getting ahead of ourselves in thinking we can achieve anything, futile articles on why we’re less attractive will continue to be published. Our reproductive practices will continue to be viewed as a spectacle for everyone to see, and the attacks on our personhood will continue to flourish.
What we must remember is that the media does not define us. They do not understand us, and have no desire to. Know that this is deliberate.
But we must not grow weary. We must continue to uplift one another. Use our voices to tell our multifaceted stories. Our mere existence is a testament against an oppressive system that would rather we continue on as the mules of the world Zora noted decades ago. But like Zora, we must not “weep at the world.” We should be “too busy sharpening our oyster knife.”